Weighty Issues After Cancer
By Pat Battaglia
It comes as an unwelcome surprise to many who are diagnosed with breast cancer that treatments for the disease often result in weight gain. In fact, contrary to common portrayals of cancer patients in the media, the majority of women diagnosed with breast cancer experience weight gain that can linger after treatment ends. Although this doesn’t appear to substantially affect the prognosis of the disease, it can have negative consequences on overall health.1
Treatment-induced weight gain is thought to occur for a number of reasons. Physical activity decreases during recovery from surgery, and lower energy reserves also result from fatigue, a common side effect of radiation and/or chemotherapy used to treat certain breast and gynecologic cancers. Hormonal therapies used for estrogen and progesterone-receptor positive breast cancer can affect body composition, including the ratio of fat to lean tissue and lipid balance. And treatment-induced menopause, which often occurs in premenopausal women, is a contributing factor in weight gain for many. Some research has indicated that increased body mass may point to fundamental metabolic changes caused by chemotherapy that make it difficult for women to return to their pre-diagnosis weight.1
Exercise improves body composition and metabolic profile, whether or not it results in weight loss. And regardless of the number on the scale, it has benefits in terms of prognosis and quality of life for survivors of both breast and gynecologic cancers.2 The greatest benefits appear to occur when physical activity is combined with nutrition and strong social support.3
Survivors of breast and gynecologic cancers face decisions and treatments that are often life-altering. Body image can suffer in the aftermath of these diagnoses, and if those numbers on the scale begin to rise, it can compound the issues. But survivors are resilient. Given the information they need, the tools to act on that information, and the social support to see them through, survivors tend to face each new challenge with determination and strength. Taking charge of our own health is a matter of individual priorities and choices. But whatever health-promoting strategies are used, taking proactive health measures can become a way to regain a sense of one’s self as a healthy person when that has been thrown into disarray by a cancer diagnosis. And that is a life-affirming way to nurture ourselves during recovery and beyond.
This story appeared in the Spring 2019 edition of Voices of the Ribbon newsletter.